As this column is being written, Brandon’s Keystone Centre is a flurry of activity, with this being Ag Days week.
It’s no small feat, transforming a hockey arena and recreation complex into one of the premier winter agriculture shows in North America.
The sheer amount of large farm machinery that will enter (and later exit) the building safely and efficiently is mind boggling, to say nothing of the swarms of expected visitors.
It’s become an enormous annual event over the past four decades and for many in the farm sector in Manitoba the event is the kickoff of what’s informally known as “meeting season.”
Outside observers are always a little confused when I tell them that my busiest time of year is this window. After the holiday season, but before the slow return of daylight melts the snow and pulls you inexorably towards the shop and field.
Some just naturally assume that the farm media would be busiest in the summer when farmers themselves are busiest, not realizing that your crushing workload makes reading a newspaper a lower priority in those months.
Others seem to have a vision of farmers who spend their winters jetting off to sunny locations or perhaps snowmobiling and ice fishing if they’re sticking closer to home.
You know the real truth. This is the season when a lot of the important decisions for farm operations are made. When the first logistical planning starts for the crucial spring season, something that can make or break a year.
It’s also one of the rare opportunities many farmers have to pause and look beyond their own farm operation and consider the broader industry as a whole.
For that reason it’s within this winter window commodity group meetings are scheduled, various producer days are held and major farm shows like Ag Days are set.
This round of “meeting season” has particular significance for Manitoba producers, as Shannon VanRaes reports. Filing from the annual St. Jean Farm Days, she details a discussion about the proposed merger of a number of provincial commodity groups.
There are plenty of good points to ponder on either side of this discussion.
Proponents point out the efficiency gains to be found. Crop producers in Manitoba mainly grow the same handful of grain and oilseed crops, which share many of the same issues. Soil conservation and weed resistance, just to cite two examples, are a concern of anyone producing annual crops in Manitoba.
That means scarce checkoff dollars could be directed into research that serves all. It could also mean a more coherent — and therefore more effective — farm lobby on crucial shared concerns. Transportation issues are both a good example of the type of issue, and the value of a more concerted approach.
In the most recent rounds of furious lobbying around the upcoming Bill C-49, known as the Transportation Modernization Act, Prairie farm commodity groups displayed strategic genius.
They initially spent time behind closed doors massaging their message, agreed on the key points, then pulled in other bulk shippers from other sectors with the same message, and finally presented a united front to government.
Faced with a unified message from all corners, government delivered a proposed bill that ticked a lot of boxes for farmers, which is now anxiously awaited.
In some ways, this proposed merger looks like a logical extension of that thinking and could be just as effective.
Not so fast, say other producers, worried about the possibility they’ll lose their voice in this process.
Sure, they agree, there are shared issues across commodities, but there are also differences and issues that are uniquely their own. One concern that keeps popping up in the discussions is whether or not smaller-acre commodities will get a fair shake under the proposal.
These farmers point out that crops with just a few thousand, or even a few tens of thousand acres could very well get lost in the shuffle and be forgotten. When canola, wheat and soybeans are counted in the millions of acres, they may have a point.
I’ve also heard some of these growers point out there’s already a vehicle for the shared issues of farmers — the province’s general farm organization the Keystone Agricultural Producers. They feel that farmer-directed organization already stands on guard for Manitoba producers.
Both sides of this discussion have legitimate points for you to ponder, and the groups seem to be making a real and concerted effort to talk to members.
It may happen, it may not happen or the final form may lie somewhere in the middle with greater collaboration, but no merger.
One thing is clear though. This is your chance to have your say and you should use it.
Make the most of this meeting season.